MiG-21-The rugged, agile approaches its twilight years
An icon of the Cold War, the MiG-21 came to symbolize the military
might of the Soviet Union as it squared off against the West in
conflicts from Vietnam to Africa and the Middle East.
Now, exactly 50 years after it entered service, the jet fighter is
approaching the twilight of its career in frontline service - with NATO,
the former Soviet Union’s main rival.
The rugged and agile jet earned a reputation as a versatile and
effective short-range interceptor with low operating costs and excellent
performance. Just like the Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle - another
robust and reliable weapon that epitomized Soviet power - the MiG-21
holds a unique place in military history.
“It was one of the best fighters ever, very reliable, and a real
challenge to all pilots who fought against it,” said David Ivry, a
former chief of the Israeli Air Force who battled MiG-21s as a squadron
leader in the 1967 Six-Day War and as a commander in the 1973 and 1982
wars. MiGs derived their name from the initials of their designers,
Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich.
Codenamed Fishbed by NATO, the MiG-21 gained fame during the Vietnam
War, where it was used by the North Vietnamese air force to intercept
American bombers. Although heavily outnumbered, the small Fishbeds could
evade radar and ambush U.S. formations with hit-and-run attacks in which
many U.S. jets, including top-of-the line F-4 Phantoms, were downed or
forced to abort their missions.
“The MiG-21 was lighter and more agile than the Phantom, which gave
it a better chance to survive in a dogfight,” wrote Russian aviation
historian Vladimir Babich, who analyzed the MiG’s performance in
The U.S. Air Force first gained vital insight into the Mig-21s
capabilities after a defecting Iraqi pilot brought one to Israel in
1966. The Israelis also exploited their findings during the 1967 Six-Day
war, when their surprise air strikes destroyed the Arab air forces on
Although the plane’s performance was enhanced over the years,
designers never succeeded in overcoming the limited fuel capacity,
stemming from the design’s small size.
Another weakness was thick windshield framing that reduced the
pilot’s forward visibility, a serious problem during aerial combat.
Still, more than 10,000 MiG-21s were built, making it the most widely
produced jet fighter ever built. The delta-winged Mach 2 interceptor -
Mach 2 is double the speed of sound - was widely exported and became the
backbone of about 50 air forces in Europe, Africa and Asia.
It was used in a dozen armed conflicts in the past 30 years, more
than any other fighter in history.
In the 1970s, the U.S. introduced two jets which outperformed the
MiG-21 - the new F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons. The Soviets
countered with MiG-29s and Sukhoi-27s. By the 1980s the aging Fishbeds
were relegated to second-line duties, like reconnaissance.
Russia has long since retired the MiG-21, but it remains operational
with numerous air forces around the world.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the
USSR’s former East European allies joined NATO, bringing more than 200
of their aging MiG-21s into the Western alliance.
Most have since been replaced, but the old warhorse soldiers on in
NATO members Romania and Bulgaria, and in Croatia, scheduled to join the
alliance in 2009.
All three plan to retire the Fishbed over the next three or four
years. Alen Warnes, editor of Air Forces Monthly, a specialized British
publication, noted that the MiG-21 is the last fighter from the 1950s to
remain operational and that no other fighter has achieved such
longevity. “No aircraft has influenced military aviation in post-World
War II Europe more than the MiG-21,” Warnes said.
(Courtesy: Moscow News)